A few days ago, I got Dan Simmons’ new book, The Terror: A Novel. It’s based on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, which set out from England in 1845 in search of the fabled North-West Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Despite having two of the better cold-weather ships in the Royal Navy, and years of provisions, the party disappeared into the Arctic. The ships were trapped in ice, Franklin himself died, and after two years, the ships were abandoned. So far as we know, all 120-odd members of the expedition died.
Nothing was ever heard from the expeditions (by Europeans, anyway– apparently, the ships were almost a tourist attraction for the Inuit, and David Woodman’s Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony gathers voluminous material documenting local knowledge of the expedition), which makes it a great platform for an historical thriller. And when one of the ships is actually called Terror (the other was Erebus), it’s inevitable that someone writes about them.
I find much of Simmons’ work quite compelling, both in an emotional sense– reading Song of Kali made for a very disturbing afternoon– and an intellectual one– his Ilium and Olympos, which replay the Homeric epics on Mars, on the base of Mount Olympus (with a big dose of The Tempest stirred in), are wonderfully audacious. (Imagine Steven King rewriting the Old Testament, with an emphasis on all the really gory stuff.) The Terror is a bit like The Difference Engine or Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, in that all begin with real historical events and people, but then spin off into these weird alternate universes.
Some of the books’ recurring themes are a bit disturbing. A few of Simmons’ books have, shall we say, a complicated relationship with Catholicism. Characters you spend a lot of time with have a way of getting horribly mutilated or killed. The societies he conjures are defined principally by their relationships with some awful monster or threat: to paraphrase Freud, the discontents of the civilizations in Simmons’ books tend to be things that decapitate their victims before sucking the still-warm marrow out of their bones. The result is a world-view that’s equal parts Thomas Hobbes and H. P. Lovecraft.
Still, Simmons is unquestionably a brilliant writer, and I have to respect anyone who thinks on such a big scale.
[To the tune of Ludwig van Beethoven, “Sonate no. 22 op. 54 in f gr.t., ,” from the album “Piano Sonatas Vol. 2“.]
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